Produce food safety remains a work in progress as the industry seeks to influence writing of the Food Safety Modernization Act’s rules.

The industry is five years into development of the Produce Traceability Initiative and inside the comment period for the FSMA’s rules that will affect how it grows, packs and distributes its produce.

Activity abounds in the produce sector and Jim Gorny, senior adviser for produce safety at the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition in Washington, D.C., said he sees lots of energy going into development of best practices and standards.

“We understand the anxiety of people wanting to see the other three rules in the suite, which are the foreign supplier verification, third-party certification and the animal feed rule. We understand the interplay and the produce industry is a very global business, but so is the whole food industry.”

The FDA statutorily has up to a year to finalize its produce rules after concluding the comment period, Gorny said.

Still, the FDA isn’t planning any hard and fast compliance for at least two years afterward, he said.

“We will have plenty of time to do this educational outreach before we go into full compliance mode,” Gorny said.

“When we develop the compliance guidance documents, it won’t be a ‘Ta-da! Here’s the rule and you have to comply in 60 days.’ That’s not how it will work.”

Improving safety

David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, said the state of food safety in the produce industry is one of continual improvement.

“I came out of the processed foods industry when HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) rules were written for meat and poultry,” he said.

“A lot of the same discussions we’re seeing now we saw in the processed industries. In some of those industries, it took longer for them to recognize and catch up on the safety issue. The produce industry has come on faster. It has taken this on much more seriously and made cultural changes much faster than we’ve seen in other industry.”

Elliott Grant, founder and chief marketing officer for YottaMark, Redwood City, Calif., agrees.

“I would say the produce industry is a work in progress, but good progress, so far,” he said.

“But we are not there yet. There are important milestones that are being crossed now. FSMA has published the first wave on food safety, primarily around handling and preventive measures. It doesn’t say anything about traceability yet but that’s anticipated.”

Ed Treacy, vice president of supply chain efficiencies for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, co-chairs the PTI implementation and the PTI buyers working groups.

While most major retailers are working on adopting PTI, Treacy said up to 40% of the suppliers are using PTI.

“Considering there have been very few retailers and foodservice companies taking a hard line and demanding it, that’s a very good voluntary adoption rate,” he said.

“There are two ways to look at it. One, it will be a cost and a burden. The other is to consider it an opportunity. I see a lot of companies getting a lot more back than they’ve invested in it to be compliant from the supply side.”

Treacy said he thinks the number of suppliers adopting PTI will increase substantially after one of the major chains sets a firm date in requesting its suppliers’ implementation.

Dan Vache, United Fresh’s Redmond, Wash.-based vice president of supply chain management, said large retailers are working on implementing PTI.

“They’re getting closer to saying, ‘OK, we have these expectations. We will be ready on this date to require it from our suppliers’,” Vache said.

“They haven’t come out with any specific dates, but they’re working on it continuously.”

One snag, he said, involves retailers needing to work with their legal departments.

Traceability is necessary because the industry cannot test every piece of product that’s harvested from the fields, said Gary Fleming, vice president of strategic services for RedLine Solutions Inc., Santa Clara, Calif.

“The produce industry is similar to other fresh food sectors and has a very good road map in the way the PTI is to enable whole-chain traceability that will help the industry and the FDA,” Fleming said.

“Implementation, however, continues to be stalled by pending regulations from the FDA or minimal requirements by the leading retailers.”

Saying PTI costs too much, some companies dismiss it but are only betraying their lack of homework to see exactly how much it costs, Fleming said.

“The amazing thing is there is not one company I’ve talked to ... that says it’s not the right thing to do,” he said.

“If we don’t do it, we will have a broken system of traceability and nothing will be changed. No one has been able to successfully argue against PTI.”